At a 2018 rally, teachers gathered outside the Oklahoma Capitol building during a walkout to demand higher pay and more fu...

Some Oklahoma teachers say they’re ‘walking on eggshells.’ Will this one midterm race help?

OKLAHOMA CITY – The national conversation on education issues such as critical race theory, school choice, teacher pay and LGBTQ+ rights is playing out in full force in Oklahoma and driving the fervor in the upcoming race for the next Oklahoma superintendent of public instruction.

One month into the new school year, hundreds of Oklahoma teachers gathered at a “Save Public Education” rally hosted by Democratic elected officials and several candidates for office.

Staffers from several local campaigns passed out posters and volunteer sign-up sheets for each candidate at the September event, and some booths also offered voter registration forms. Speakers ranging from school board members to candidates for the Senate discussed what they considered to be the No. 1 issue heading into the midterms – the state of Oklahoma public instruction.

The race between Republican Ryan Walters, the state’s current secretary of education, and first-time candidate Democrat Jena Nelson has highlighted many key issues that teachers, administrators and experts say have a substantial impact on the classroom. The state superintendent’s office, as one of its several duties, interprets the policies and rules set by the state Board of Education.

Jena Nelson, the former Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, announces her candidacy as a Democrat in the 2022 election for state

Jena Nelson, the former Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, announces her candidacy as a Democrat in the 2022 election for state schools superintendent on March 31, 2022.Nelson 7224118001 6

“A lot of teachers are telling me right now they’ve got one leg out the door,” Nelson, a former state teacher of the year, told the crowd. “People are ready for a sense of hope. They’ve been bombarded with fear, fear, fear – over and over again.”

The same day, Walters, who has described the debates over CRT and LGBTQ+ rights as a “civil war” over kids’ minds, posted a video of himself from his car in which he decried teachers unions and Nelson’s claim that Walters will defund public schools.

“These are scare tactics,” Walters said in the video, dated Sept. 7. “Liberals will do anything to keep power or to get into power, but I know Oklahomans and I trust Oklahomans are going to see through this.”

The race for state schools superintendent has created one of the most heated down-ballot races in recent midterms history, said Kyle Loveless, chief operating officer for Oklahoma pollster SoonerPoll.com. He called the race for Oklahoma’s top elected education position a “barn burner.”

“It’s the most competitive race we’ve seen this year [in Oklahoma] and the only one where we currently show a Democrat ahead of a Republican.” The poll was released in late September.

Still, the odds are against any Democrat winning on Election Day. Registered Republicans in Oklahoma outnumber registered Democrats nearly 2 to 1. But the superintendent race has become an entanglement of hot-button issues, like what’s taught in classrooms, the future of public schools and parental rights.

Why education is a key issue in Oklahoma

The candidates at the top of the ballot have also cast education as a top priority and a core part of their campaign messages.

Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt is facing a closer-than-expected challenge to his re-election from current superintendent for education Joy Hofmeister. Recent polling saw Hofmeister, who changed her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat to run against Stitt, narrow the incumbent’s lead to a dead heat less than two weeks from Election Day.

Hofmeister told the PBS NewsHour she believes Oklahoma’s teacher shortage and low test scores will only become worse if Stitt is re-elected. The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress put the state among those performing significantly below the U.S. average in math and reading.

“We must work to give all children in Oklahoma public schools the resources they need to be successful,” Hofmeister said. “We need a governor who gets the connection between people and teachers who are trained and have the resources they need on Day 1 to meet the needs of children.”

Stitt said Hofmeister had her chance to turn Oklahoma schools around as superintendent for education for the past two terms.

In the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count Data Book survey, Oklahoma ranked 40th for overall child well-being and was in the bottom half of states on indicators, like education, health, and family and community.

The survey, released in August, shows 74 percent of Oklahoma eighth graders are not proficient in math, and 71 percent of fourth graders are not proficient in reading.

“This is a trend we need to reverse because we need our children to be successful. We need them to be happy, healthy, thriving, not just for them, but for us,” said Gabrielle Jacobi, an analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute and Kids Count data coordinator, in a statement after the survey’s release. “We’re expecting those same eighth graders who aren’t doing so well in math right now to be legal adults in five years and step into the workforce, step into roles as community leaders and caretakers and parents.”

Loveless said this election is not just motivating teachers to get out the vote, but parents too. He noted that pollsters at SoonerPoll have seen how specific education topics, like school choice, have galvanized parents.

Loveless said school choice always polls very well in Oklahoma. “But when you get down to the details and the possibility that moving those dollars could equal a loss of funding in their school, that’s when [people’s opinions on school choice] flips,” he said.

Jessica Hunt, who attended the “Save Public Education” rally, has two children attending the Classen School of Advanced Studies, a magnet school in Oklahoma City where Nelson taught. Hunt said she’s largely happy with her children’s education; But she doesn’t like the divisive language from the state’s GOP leadership.

“When you see what’s going on at some of the other schools and the fear the teachers are facing, it’s scary to see. The rhetoric being thrown around is out of hand.”

How critical race theory factors into one down-ballot race

Cassie Pierce, an elementary school teacher in the Deer Creek school district, a suburb outside Oklahoma City, said she and her colleagues feel like they are “walking on eggshells.”

After the passage of House Bill 1775 in 2021, which banned the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, Pierce said she is questioning what she is allowed to teach her students and what could make her a target of Republican leaders.

“We have to evaluate everything we are teaching, even though we know what best practices are or should be,” Pierce said. “You worry and ask yourself, ‘Is this going to spark an outrage that someone will use against me for their own political gain?’”

Pierce added that teachers are having to weigh everything they do “and that sometimes means making choices that aren’t in the best interest of the students.”

“That’s the political climate right now,” she said.

Critical race theory is an academic concept developed by legal scholars in the 1980s that explains the systemic nature of racism in America. Republican-led attacks on critical race theory, which is often introduced to graduate students, say that the theoretical framework is being taught as part of the classroom curriculum to K-12 public schools students. But there’s little evidence to support those claims.

That hasn’t kept CRT from becoming a rallying cry for conservative campaigns across the country, said Jennifer Victor, a political scientist at George Mason University.

“Historically in the U.S., significant progress toward greater racial equality is met with significant backlash,” Victor said. “Republicans’ focus on critical race theory is a part of this cycle of backlash. CRT is a convenient, although largely misplaced, villain for anyone seeking to challenge the idea that racism is systemic in American society.”

The topic has sparked fierce national and local debates among parents, teachers and administrators and has led to protests at school board meetings, book bans and a growing number of educators worried about becoming targets of political or ideological attacks.

WALTERS PHOTO CAPTION: Ryan Walters celebrates winning the GOP primary runoff election for state superintendent in August 2022, during a watch party in Oklahoma City. Photo by Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman/USA Today Network

WALTERS PHOTO CAPTION: Ryan Walters celebrates winning the GOP primary runoff election for state superintendent in August 2022, during a watch party in Oklahoma City. Photo by Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman/USA Today Network

Walters, who was appointed by Gov. Stitt in 2020, has said it’s his mission to eliminate “woke ideology” from schools and to “put a stop to indoctrination” of Oklahoma’s children.

Walters said one of his proudest accomplishments as secretary of education was the passage of HB 1775.

“We’ve seen a law that has allowed for parents to know that there’s not going to be this radical indoctrination in their schools,” Walters said during a Oct. 25 televised debate against Nelson.

The law bans teachers from promoting the idea that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Teachers also must not instruct students that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” nor make a student feel “guilt” or “anguish” on “account of his or her race or sex.”

Last month, a high school English teacher in Norman resigned following allegations from a parent that she made political remarks in the classroom in violation of the law. Boismier shared a QR code with her students that directed them to the Brooklyn Public Library’s “Books Unbanned” project. Boismier also covered up a bookshelf in her class with butcher paper labeled, “Books the state doesn’t want you to read.” Boismer has since taken a job with the Brooklyn Public Library in New York.

The Oklahoma State Board of Education also voted in July to demote two public schools’ accreditation to penalize the districts over reported violations of the new state law’s restrictions on teaching some race and gender topics in the classroom.

Tulsa and Mustang Public Schools were the first Oklahoma districts to be punished from the 2021 law. Both districts had their status lowered to “accredited with warning,” a more drastic penalty than the Oklahoma State Department of Education recommended. The rating incurs extra state oversight and indicates a district failed to meet standards in a way that “seriously detracts” from the quality of its educational program.

Following the decision to punish the two school districts, Tamya Cox-Touré, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, issued a statement warning that the punishment for these schools was just the start of censorship in the classroom.

“Make no mistake: Tulsa Public Schools is just the beginning,” Cox-Touré wrote. “Everyone deserves to learn an inclusive and complete history in school, free from censorship or discrimination, but, with the passing of HB 1775, Oklahoma politicians endorsed classroom censorship.”

Why school choice is also on voters’ minds

Throughout Stitt’s first term as governor, he has pushed for school vouchers that provide taxpayer dollars to families in order to send a student to private or charter schools instead of their local public schools.

That initiative aligns with Republican strategy nationwide. In Florida, Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, laid out a 12-point plan of conservative priorities should the GOP take control of the Senate following the midterms. Near the top of the list of Republican goals for education was the ability for parents to choose the school that fits the needs of their children.

“We will enact equal opportunity in education (school choice) so no child will be sent to a failing school simply because of their zip code,” Scott’s “Rescue America” plan reads.

Stitt’s push for school vouchers failed in March during a late-night vote on the Senate floor after some members of his own party, including some educators and representatives of more rural districts with fewer private school options, raised concerns. House Speaker Charles McCall, a Republican, said in a news briefing about Stitt’s voucher plan that he did not believe residents of smaller counties in Oklahoma would have the same access to private schools as those near city centers.

“The population is so sparse that are there going to be options that really pop up?” McCall said. “That definitely would be the rural concern for the members I serve with, including myself.”

Still, Stitt and Walters, who is also the executive director of the school choice nonprofit Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, continue to push for school vouchers heading into November’s election.

“We’re going to continue to invest in schools,” Stitt said at a campaign stop earlier this month. “But we want some of that funding to be fungible to fund the student, not necessarily to [the] zip code where they belong because some of these school districts have high dropout rates or low test scores. They’re not going to fix themselves from within.”

Derrell Bradford, the President of 50CAN, a nonprofit backed by billionaire and right-wing donor Charles Koch that advocates for school choice, said while the idea of voucher systems and parental choice isn’t new, it has gained steam since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced schools across the country to close their doors and move to online instruction.

“School choice is a way to deal with that feeling of betrayal,” Bradford said. “The underlying sentiment is a loss of control. Families who felt like schools were organized on their terms and that power was taken away from them. That is what many Republicans are responding to.”

The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed across-the-board declines for American fourth and eighth graders in math and reading during the pandemic. In Oklahoma, there was a worse decline in reading and math test scores than the national average.

Bradford said those results will only increase the importance of “school choice.”

“Republicans are running on these issues right now,” he said. “In Oklahoma at least, your leaders are willing to do something about it. The proof will not just be whether or not candidates support it on the campaign trail, but whether they take action with policy.”

At the end of their debate, Walters and Nelson thanked each other, acknowledged each other’s teaching background and the impact they had on former students.

Walters then used his closing statement to say Nelson’s vision of Oklahoma public schools is to “inject liberal indoctrination” into school classrooms.

Nelson refuted those claims and said it was time to put away the divisive language, calling instead for everyone to work together to secure the future of education for Oklahoma’s children.